Trailing Illinois 2-1 heading into the top of the seventh inning, it appeared the Kentucky softball team may have run out of lives this season. After dropping a winner’s bracket game to Utah 2-0 a few hours earlier, UK faced elimination in the Lexington Regional against the Illini, who were the home team on the scoreboard, and offense had been hard to come by all day.
But the Cats’ bats came alive just in time, as a two-out shot to centerfield by freshman Katie Reed brought Christian Stokes home to tie the game and send it to extra innings, where Stokes laced a double to the right field wall that scored Abbey Cheek and gave the Cats a 3-2 lead.
Senior Kelsey Nunley finished off a brilliant relief outing in the bottom of the inning, retiring the final three Illini batters after giving up a leadoff single to send UK to tomorrow’s finals against Utah at John Cropp Stadium.
“Thank God the freshman saved us,” said Nunley, referring to Reed’s game-tying hit in the seventh inning.
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Reed said she felt jitters heading to the plate, but she didn’t want to let her team down.
“I was nervous, but I had to. I had to get a hit,” she said.
Things looked bleak before Reed came to the plate. Stokes started the inning with a leadoff single, but then Maisie Steed popped out to third base while attempting a sacrifice bunt. The Cats were down to their final out after Sylver Samuel grounded to third, moving Stokes to second base but getting called out at first in a bang-bang play in the process. Head coach Rachel Lawson was livid over the call, racing onto the field to argue with the first base umpire.
“I hadn’t gotten my warning yet and I wanted to make sure I got my money’s worth,” said Lawson. “I only argue when I am sure that I am correct and for me, you never want to see any player … go down because of something that I believe I saw differently.”
But things worked out fine after Reed and Stokes’ heroics.
After starter Meagan Smith gave up two runs in the opening frame on an RBI single by Nicole Evans and a bases-loaded walk to Emily Brodner, Nunley came on in relief and struck out Carly Thomas to stop the bleeding and strand three Illini runners.
As she has been all year, Nunley was clutch, sitting down 13 straight Illinois batters leading into the seventh inning and giving the UK offense the chance it needed.
Kentucky will need to take two straight against Utah on Sunday to advance to next week’s Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament, with hopes of eventually advancing to the program’s second College World Series. The Utes knocked off the Cats 2-0 in the second of four games at John Cropp Stadium Saturday, after the Cats finished off Butler 6-1 in the first game, which was resumed in the second inning after a rain delay Friday night.
Back in February at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., Kentucky clipped the Utes 1-0 on a passed ball in the bottom of the seventh. After beating Illinois 1-0 Friday in the Lexington Regional’s opening game, Utah Coach Amy Hogue predicted the outcome would be different if a rematch with UK materialized in the double-elimination tounrament. Her words proved prophetic.
Utah’s Anissa Urtez belted a two-run homer off Kelsey Nunley in the top of the first inning, which was more than enough insurance for Utah starter Katie Donovan, who held the UK offense to 4 hits in the 3-0 win.
Urtez threw just 75 pitches and accounted for all but the final out of the game, when Miranda Viramontes came on in relief to strike out Jenny Schaper, stranding two UK runners and notching her second save of the season.
Donovan said Urtez’s early homer gave her the freedom to attack the strike zone early in the count.
“After Anissa comes up with that big hit and gives us the lead it gives us a lot more options for pitch calling,” she said. “We can pitch with that lead and get them out with some pretty simple pitches.”
Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth, it looked like UK was about to mount a legitimate threat when Cheek led off with a shot to the left-center wall for a double. But two pitches later poor base running ended the Cats’ scoring bid. Schaper lined a grounder to third base and Cheek got caught in no-man’s land, eventually getting tagged out in a rundown. In the meantime, Schaper toyed with sneaking to second base and ended up caught in a rundown herself.
“Our whole defense plays with such confidence,” said Hogue. “If you give us something we’ll take it, and they got caught leaning and then got caught leaning again, and before you know it we got both of them out.”
The action between the Cats and Utes begins at 1 p.m. at John Cropp Stadium Sunday.
Kentucky vs. Utah
1 p.m. Sunday in Lexington Regional (ESPN3)